A GOP Sponsor on Wisconsin’s Latest Push for Medical Cannabis Legalization

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Wisconsin is one of the few remaining states in the country without a medical cannabis program, and a bill introduced on September 20 could change that.

Or maybe not. This is not the first push for medical cannabis in the Midwestern holdout, and lawmakers say it might not be the last. Cannabis Wire spoke with state Senator Patrick Testin, the Republican who co-authored the bill with Senator Jon Erpenbach and Representative Chris Taylor, both Democrats, about why he thinks the time is right for medical cannabis in Wisconsin, what to expect with the new legislation, and also how it may be an uphill fight despite public support and a bipartisan effort. 

Some background: Past efforts by state Representative Melissa Sargent in 2013, 2015, and 2017, and in May of this year, to legalize cannabis for both medical and adult use faced staunch Republican opposition. This time around, the bill—which notably excludes adult use—has bi-partisan co-authors and co-sponsors. Nonetheless, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald all but stamped out the likelihood of a green light in the legislature with a statement he gave the day the bill was introduced, in which he reiterated his opposition. With a run for the US House of Representatives coming up, he’s unlikely to change his mind anytime soon. 

What’s in the bill? It would create a registry system for medical ID cards available to patients with conditions including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or HIV, Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, Alzheimer’s disease, and PTSD. Prospective medical cannabis producers, processors, and dispensaries would apply for a license through the state’s Department of Agriculture. The bill would also allow for “homegrow” of up to twelve plants, a measure meant to protect underserved populations who might not have access to dispensaries. 

Wisconsin voters support medical cannabis: Governor Tony Evers tweeted on September 20, “The people of Wisconsin overwhelmingly support legalizing medical marijuana. In fact, the April @MULawPoll showed that 83% of Wisconsinites support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.” Advisory referendums last year also showed overwhelming support. Almost a million voters in sixteen Wisconsin counties said they’d support medical and adult use cannabis. And nearby Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio have all legalized medical cannabis and, with the exception of Ohio, adult use cannabis. Governor Evers weighed in again with his support on the matter, tweeting on September 25, “This is really about helping those who are struggling with chronic pain or debilitating illness by providing an alternative treatment option.” 

In his push for the bill, Senator Testin cites his own grandfather’s struggle with chronic illness and the grandfather’s effective use of cannabis for relief, arguing that the time has come in Wisconsin for a common-sense medical cannabis law. (This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)

Sophie Putka, Cannabis Wire: Just for a little bit of context for our readers, why this bill and why now in Wisconsin?

State Senator Patrick Testin: This is legislation I had been working on since last fall. And then early on this session I reached out to state Senator John Erpenbach and state Representative Chris Taylor, both Democrats from the Madison area. They had worked on this issue in the past and so I said, ‘hey, it would be great if we could work on this together, make this a bipartisan bill, and see if we can create a framework that could work here in the state of Wisconsin.’ And this is an issue that I have experience with in my own family. Back in the year 2000 my grandfather was diagnosed with both bone and lung cancer. It was a terminal illness, and the only thing that got his appetite back with all the drugs and chemotherapy that he was on was marijuana. My story is not unique. There are thousands if not tens of thousands of stories like that all across the state.

When I’ve gone to town halls throughout my district, veterans have come up to me and pulled me aside, and they have tears that are running down their face and they talk about the horror stories they’ve encountered through opioids and prescription drugs they’re prescribed from VA. They smoke marijuana and it gives them the relief that all these medicines aren’t giving them. Here we have brave men and women who have served our country, they’ve gone overseas, done their tour of duty, and then they come home with issues like PTSD and chronic pain and now have to go out and commit an illegal act to get the only relief that they can’t get from prescription drugs.

Putka: Since you’ve been working on this, have the initial sponsors been able to gather additional support from other state lawmakers?

Testin: As you can probably imagine there are many on the Democratic side who have signed on, but we have picked up some additional Republican co-sponsors in the state assembly. I think we’re up to two there, and so I’m encouraged by that. If you happen to follow cannabis legislation in the state of Wisconsin, it’s always been an uphill battle, especially on our side of the aisle. It’s still an uphill battle, to be honest. After we released the bill, our Senate Majority Leader released a statement. I knew that he was going to, that he was opposed to it. But I do think there is an openness to this idea and this concept in the state assembly. Even Speaker [Robin] Vos has indicated that he’s open to this, so I’m encouraged by that and I hope we can use this as a starting point to educate our colleagues on the potential benefits.

Putka: I know the Senate Majority Leader said the bill was dead, that it’s not going to happen. What’s your response to that? 

Testin: I want to be an optimist about this and every time you release a bill, your intended goal is to see it get passed. He’s been consistent on his position with this, but I do see a need for it. And just like any time we introduce a bill that may face an uncertain future, I’m going to do my best to work with my colleagues and educate them on why I think this is a good idea. So we may not get there this session. But when you take a look at what’s going on nationally, where over thirty-three states have introduced some form of cannabis program for medicinal purposes, it just shows me that there is a huge appetite for this in the public at large. 

Putka: When you discuss this bill with fellow Republicans, what are some of the advantages to legalization that you stress? 

Testin: One of the things that I try to relay to them is that this is about giving patients alternatives to dangerous prescription drugs like opioids. We’re seeing a huge increase in opioid deaths. Opioids have led to addiction to more dangerous drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. I also do try to let them know that any time the question “well, what if people abuse this?” gets brought up, well, we have people abusing legal prescription drugs right now. That’s why it’s important that when you work with your doctor, that they’re using best practices and trying to do the treatment that works best. But as with anything, if you do it too much, there’s potential adverse effects. 

Putka: In drafting this legislation, did you consult with any other states? Was there a model that you were following?

Testin: Yeah, when we sat down and we began to take a look at our different drafts, there were things that we took from a lot of different states. For instance, we took a look at the Michigan model for homegrow, because that’s a provision that a lot of the advocates want, especially in underserved areas, where they may not have access to a dispensary. We took a look at, what have other states done that have seen some success and tried to craft a bill that would be workable for our state and our regulatory environment.

Putka: Getting back to adjusting the legislation to the particular needs of Wisconsin, what makes Wisconsin different when it comes to trying to pass this kind of bill?

Testin: Well, one of the biggest challenges and one that makes us kind of unique is the fact that we’re now kind of on an island where every state around us has adopted a medical cannabis program or has gone fully recreational. So I think our biggest challenge remains more of a political challenge: trying to make the case that there is a need here in the state. I think education is going to be key over the course of the next several months. And if it doesn’t gain any traction this session, hopefully [we’ll] bring it back next session and continue the process again and continue to build the case.

Putka: I know it’s fairly early, but what have been the early responses that stood out to you? 

Testin: I’ve had a lot of constituents reach out and thank me and appreciate the work that we’ve done on this—people from all walks of life, from all political persuasions. So it just goes to show that this isn’t a partisan issue, that there’s bipartisan support for this. What I’ve been telling people is: please contact your state representative, contact your state senator, and have that conversation with them. And don’t necessarily vilify them if they’re opposed to it, but make the case as to why this would be beneficial.  

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